Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Although overall homelessness in the District fell more than 10 percent from 2016 to 2017, it’s no secret that homeless people still face significant barriers to employment, housing, education, and other spheres. That’s why At-Large Councilmember David Grosso proposed a new bill today that would make being homeless a protected class under the D.C. Human Rights Act, which broadly prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, and income source.

The legislation would simply add homelessness to the law’s list of almost 20 protected traits and allow the homeless to bring legal complaints with the District, possibly resulting in civil penalties, compensatory damages, or reinstatement of jobs. Typically, homelessness is defined in D.C. as not having a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” including those sleeping on the streets, in cars, and in shelters. The council is also considering sweeping changes to its primary homeless services law, which officials say would bring D.C.’s definition of homelessness in line with federal guidelines.

Grosso named the proposal after Michael A. Stoops, an organizer who helped found both the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless and the North American Street Newspaper Association. Stoops died earlier this year at 67.

“If we want to put people on the path to stable housing, we must end discrimination that creates another barrier in the way of people seeking to improve their situation,” Grosso says in a statement. The councilmember sits on the body’s human services committee as one of five members who directly oversee bills about homelessness.

Six other councilmembers co-introduced or co-sponsored Grosso’s legislation, making for a council majority that has signaled initial support for it. While several states have added homelessness to hate crime statutes, including the District, far fewer have enshrined legal protections for the homeless in anti-discrimination laws.

In fiscal year 2016, the city received 271 complaints under the Human Rights Act, according to an oversight document that the Office of Human Rights prepared earlier this year. The number of cases has grown, in particular because of the District’s relatively new “ban the box” law prohibiting discrimination in employment against those with criminal records. Complaints this fiscal year, which ends in September, have already already exceeded 289. 

And that trend is expected to grow next year too because in late 2016 the council passed similar “ban the box” laws related to housing and credit histories. To help process housing complaints under the Human Rights Act, the council added five full-time staffers and roughly $500,000 to the Office of Human Rights’ fiscal year 2018 budget.

Despite that D.C.’s homelessness rate dropped 10.5 percent this year based on a January count, it had increased more than 14 percent between 2015 and 2016. As of January, just under 7,500 people, including families and individuals, were recorded as homeless in the District.